First Folio's 'Firestorm' examines the power of words

  • Gaby (Melanie Loren) reacts to a revelation by her husband Patrick (Steve O'Connell) in Meridith Friedman's political drama "The Firestorm," running through April 28 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.

    Gaby (Melanie Loren) reacts to a revelation by her husband Patrick (Steve O'Connell) in Meridith Friedman's political drama "The Firestorm," running through April 28 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. Courtesy of Tom McGrath

 
 
Updated 4/3/2019 6:05 PM

"The Firestorm" -- ★ ★ ★

One word can make a world of difference.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The Firestorm," Meridith Friedman's 2015 drama in a blistering revival at First Folio Theatre, makes that clear almost from the beginning when the wife of an aspiring politician and his campaign worker disagree over how to best describe the wife's career ascent.

Gaby, the wife of Ohio gubernatorial candidate Patrick, is an African-American antitrust attorney and partner in her firm. Campaign manager Leslie describes Gaby's career trajectory as "accelerated," a word that implies race may have played a role. Rejecting the implication, Gaby substitutes the word "earned," which she says more accurately reflects her merit-based success.

Their exchange, like so many in director Rachel Lambert's taut production, is polite but pointed with a hint of unease. In fact, a kind of unease underscores much of the all-too-familiar "Firestorm," in which a racist incident Patrick participated in decades earlier threatens to derail his and Gaby's public and private lives.

Steve O'Connell plays a gubernatorial hopeful whose racist fraternity prank 20 years earlier may derail his political career and his marriage to Gaby (Melanie Loren), background, in First Folio Theatre's production of "The Firestorm."
Steve O'Connell plays a gubernatorial hopeful whose racist fraternity prank 20 years earlier may derail his political career and his marriage to Gaby (Melanie Loren), background, in First Folio Theatre's production of "The Firestorm." - Courtesy of Tom McGrath
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The action unfolds on Angela Weber Miller's minimalist set consisting of narrow, widely spaced, polished wood slats whose gaps suggest cracks in the marital and political facade.

Tension is evident the first time we're introduced to Melanie Loren's determined Gaby, who comes from an upper middle-class, Scarsdale, New York, family, and her Caucasian husband Patrick (Steve O'Connell, who resembles a young Jeff Daniels), a middle-class Midwesterner.

Clearly, they love each other. But their artfully muted conversation hints at tension below the surface of a marriage that may be more (or less) than it appears.

"My second husband is going to be so much better," Gaby teases.

"But not nearly as cute," Patrick responds.

Word choice matters here, too. Take Patrick's misstatement of the phrase "case in point," which Merriam-Webster defines as an illustrative, relevant or pertinent case. Patrick consistently misinterprets it as "case and point," which besides having a slightly different meaning, carries an air of final authority.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Assistant campaign manager Leslie (Kayla Kennedy), right, offers political advice to Gaby (Melanie Loren) in First Folio Theatre's production of Meridith Friedman's "The Firestorm."
Assistant campaign manager Leslie (Kayla Kennedy), right, offers political advice to Gaby (Melanie Loren) in First Folio Theatre's production of Meridith Friedman's "The Firestorm." - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

While supportive of her husband, Gaby resists efforts by ambitious assistant campaign manager Leslie (Kayla Kennedy) to transform her into Michelle Obama 2.0. As for the campaign, it hums along until someone who went to college with Patrick reveals that decades earlier -- during a fraternity hazing -- he and Patrick scrawled a hateful racial slur on the dorm room door of fellow freshman Jamal (Samuel Campbell III), who is African-American.

Patrick insists he quit the fraternity the day after the incident, which he describes as an alcohol-fueled mistake by an ignorant 18-year-old. His excuse rings hollow.

When it comes to weighty words, however, that incendiary slur is perhaps the heaviest.

Jamal -- now the CEO of a successful Atlanta company -- confirms it. He describes to Gaby and Patrick the near-paralyzing fear the slur instilled, which caused him to retreat from campus life and seek safety among a few close friends.

Samuel Campbell III plays Jamal, the victim of a racially motivated fraternity prank decades earlier that now threatens the election of a gubernatorial candidate, in "The Firestorm" at Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre.
Samuel Campbell III plays Jamal, the victim of a racially motivated fraternity prank decades earlier that now threatens the election of a gubernatorial candidate, in "The Firestorm" at Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre. - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

Gaby also shares her experiences. She recalls, in painful detail, her grade school crush, a white boy, rejecting her because of her race and co-workers whispering that her hard-won success had to do with the color of her skin and not her drive and talent. She speaks of having to bottle up that pain because growing up in comfort, as she did, "you're not allowed to cry."

Loren's emotionally charged recounting of Gaby's gut-wrenching revelations is quite moving, eliciting gasps from the audience on opening night.

She's matched by O'Connell, whose shrewd performance suggests Patrick's skill at navigating the razor's edge of sincerity and expediency.

Lambert's smart, economical production also features strong work from the wise, wary Campbell and from Kennedy, who reminds us that infectious enthusiasm and steely ambition are not mutually exclusive.

• • •

Location: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Thursday and Sunday through April 28. Also 4 p.m. April 13, 20 and 27

Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $29-$44

Parking: Free parking available on the estate grounds

Rating: For high school and older, includes mature language and subject matter

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